The problem of trying to tell a story such as the one I’ve undertaken is that there’s no proper beginning. There’s no moment of saying, “Wow, having a shoe fetish looks like a lot of fun! I think I’ll do that!” Instead, I discovered the things that inspire and motivate me in pretty much the way I expect you discovered your own path: through trial and error. It only took one bite of licorice for me to know it wasn’t for me. Chocolate, on the other hand, became a lifelong study. An interest in just any old chocolate gave way to a preference for dark over milk, and from there I learned that cocoa content under 60% seemed too sweet for my tastes while anything over 80% was much too bitter. So it was that I felt my way forward in childhood with a general idea that I liked footwear that felt adventurous. But figuring out that wood soled clogs were specifically what I liked...and more importantly, figuring out how to acquire and wear them, that took a lifetime to achieve.
I beg your indulgence here as I sort out my own very specific and idiosyncratic history in these pages. It would amaze me if your path matched my own in its peculiar twists and turns of desire. At the same time, I would be totally surprised if you didn’t recognize parallels with your own unique journey in the general outlines of my bid for a genuine identity. Shoes were one of many things that I resonated with strongly as I grew and came to be. But they were significant in that they were one of the first things I became aware of on the planet that fired my imagination and stoked my passions. Sigmund Freud famously labeled infants and toddlers as polymorphously perverse, and according to his analysis of human development, that ability to derive satisfaction and pleasure from any part of the body disappears as we mature to be replaced by sex drives focused along socially acceptable norms. Some of us (perhaps many of us—I would venture to say all of us) are blessed with additional fascinations that spice up our pursuit of Eros. But do we have any say in the matter of what shape or form these fascinations will take? Nope. Like a taste for chocolate or rock music or lovers of a certain gender, that’s just the way we’re wired.
A sidebar is in order here. I’ve just lumped together sex drives and pleasure and Eros, but before I move on, I feel a need to define my terms. The sex drive is a powerful force in the lives of most of us human beings. Just ask Eliot Spitzer or David Petraeus. In my experience, that particular articulation of the pursuit of pleasure is on the same continuum as anything else we do to find satisfaction in our lives. Anything. The desire for a particular partner springs from the same source as the craving for a favorite dessert or the preference for a certain automobile or the choice of which shirt to put on in the morning. It’s the ego interacting with the world (and its own conscious and unconscious inspirations) to embrace the path that expresses our identities most forcefully. There’s something inside of us that wants to shout to the universe each day, “I’m here!” And that life force, that qi, is what I’ve come to equate with Eros. Whenever I express my unique self, I am exercising that ability to be Me in the midst of the crowd, and that expression of self has found its voice in an endless variety of ways in my life.
Let me tell you about another passion of mine. I discovered the joy of music back in junior high. When I was younger, my parents had dabbled with making music over the years, but my father had given up his trumpet long ago and my mother had not kept up with her singing or piano playing. Their interest during my childhood was relegated to the occasional record they would play on the living room entertainment console. True, my father had a Heathkit tube amp he had built himself, and from time to time he would dig out country singer Marty Robbins’ album of gunslinger ballads and listen with a faraway look in his eye to “Cool Water”:
“All day I faced a barren waste without a taste of water. Cool, clear water.”
Then there was bandleader Billy Vaughn’s collaboration with word jazz innovator, Ken Nordine, “Whispering, Shifting Sands.” It told its own story of isolation and redemption:
And what about The Kingston Trio’s folk song about Charlie, the hapless commuter who was forced to live the rest of his days on the Boston train system because he didn’t have the money to pay for his transfer.
Then in an unexpected change of musical taste, my father brought home the Broadway soundtrack to Stop the World I Want to Get Off. I think with songs such as “Gonna Build a Mountain” and “What Kind of Fool Am I?”, Anthony Newley’s everyman message resonated with him deeply.
Without realizing it, I was being exposed not only to music, but also to its powerful ability to embody an emotion and deliver a message. Naturally, I started at my own square one with my parents’ taste in music. (And let me say that not all was existential angst. Thankfully, a younger neighbor had turned them onto the clever song parodies of Allen Sherman, and I was able to learn that not only could music be fun, but the unfolding melody of words and meaning could be playful, too.) Once the world of songs and singers had been introduced to me, I found myself drawn to learn more and more about it. I wouldn’t have been able to explain it at the time, but I surely recognized that there was a power and energy there that I wanted to be a part of. I like what I like. All it took was a pair of ears and a radio, and with a little tuning across the dial I gravitated to a sound that spoke to me and found the music that inspired my career. You’ve been there, too. On some non-verbal level, your mind appreciates the combination of melodies and countermelodies and rhythms and harmonies and pronounces it “good.” Quite often a favorite composer or a favorite band is able to replicate that experience for you on a regular basis. And except for a lapse of judgment on the part of the artist (see Cat Stevens), once a song is truly a fave, it’s unlikely to fall from grace.
My own discovery of favorite footwear followed a similar path. But instead of seeking out tunes on my portable radio, I only had to walk the halls of my high school to be captivated by the styles that dangled tantalizingly just beyond my reach.
Nature certainly played a part in crafting the passions that drove me. But nurture had a role as well. My feet were unusual for a boy: long, narrow, and flat. 12-1/2 AA, in fact. At least that’s what they were the last time I got measured in the men’s department. Most shoes for young boys and men are geared toward the mean, which made my mother fret anxiously about finding shoes that fit me properly. No size D boots for my feet. She was intent on getting me in Double As! And I mean intent. I recall at least one family two-hour car trip to purchase a properly sized pair of men’s dress shoes for my grade school feet. Good God! I’m surprised I survived childhood without braces on my legs. Forget fashion. Forget personal preference. Forget how bizarre it might seem for your 5th grader to be trotting around his public school in wingtips that would be more appropriately found on the feet of a business executive, she was determined that my shoes would be correct. And no, I would not be allowed to wear anything else.
The roots of my shoe frustration run deep. There’s a home movie that stands out in my memory. My 4 year old self stands gripping the railing of a brightly sunlit, snow covered porch. The snow had just fallen in the night and my parents were eager to get me outdoors to revel in the novelty of it. But I was fixed to the railing crying my eyes out with no intention of venturing forth. I don’t remember the event myself, but whenever that vignette came up on the screen, my father would chuckle over the fact that my mother had purchased a bright red pair of snow boots for me to wear and I simply hated them. I like to think that even then, I knew what I did and did not like. I also like to think that even at that young age, I had an inkling of how hard it would be to find my proper footing in the world.
In these stories you might be tempted to find the seeds for much that was to come later in life. Deprived of shoes I wanted to wear as a child, you’d be inclined to suppose that footwear took on a heightened place in my imagination as the realm of the forbidden. Or perhaps growing up in a severely circumscribed conservative culture, my rebellion was primed to take place in some decidedly flamboyant fashion. And who could blame me? When all my boyhood schoolmates were heading outdoors at recess in sneakers and gym shoes, I was forced to play tag and kickball in a pair of wingtips! (I had to smile years later when a successful sales manager friend referred to his wingtips as his “buy or die” shoes. Yep, I knew what it was like to die wearing that style.)
But dreary conformity to my mother’s vision of podiatric health was not my entire lot. I did own tennis shoes and often wore them to run around with my grade school friends. And along the way, there were occasional glimpses of another world beyond my borders. Like one afternoon in Guntersville, Alabama, when I amused myself by contriving to put on my tennis shoes back to front with my toes tucked in the heel cup and the laces strapping my ankles in place over the shoes’ instep. I understand what was going on in retrospect, but at the time I didn’t know what to make of the delicious sensation of encasing my feet in such oddly reconfigured shoes. It was simply fun.
Flash forward to the next year in Fairfax County, Virginia. Running through the woods with neighborhood kids, I noticed that next door neighbor Tommy was wearing his tennis shoes without any socks on. You mean you could do such a thing? What that must feel like! I’m embarrassed to admit that instead of just taking my socks off, I called into the house to ask my mother if I could wear my tennis shoes barefoot. (And what would you expect her to say, but “no”?)
Flash forward to the next year in Lawton, Oklahoma. I was supplied with a pair of rubber overshoes to protect my massive men’s brogues on rainy days. Oddly, they were not black, but a peculiar clear amber color. And they smelled of organic chemistry. I hated to use them for their original intent. But the sight and feel of these odd foot coverings on my bare feet was exceptional.
Then years later in Oklahoma, I had another revelation. I was marching in the trombone ranks with my junior high band in a summer street parade, and as we were rounding one of the downtown corners playing “Make Me Smile” or “The Theme from ‘Shaft’,” I noticed one of the trumpet players was marching barefoot. He had cut the feet out of his socks and wore just the uppers as sleeves over his ankles. To a casual observer, he appeared to be in full uniform. But to a footwear obsessed young man such as myself, I saw that he was enjoying that barefoot sensation in the midst of the routine of marching 8 to 5.
In the light of all these experiences, the stage was set. After years of toeing the party line and wearing what my mother thought a young boy should be wearing for the future health of his feet, I reached high school ready to make some changes. All I can say is thank DOC* for the 1960s. I was raised and schooled in an era when boys were boys and girls were girls, but as I reached puberty, all that was changing. Born as I was at the trailing edge of the bell curve of baby boomers, I have lived my life in the wake of the transitions that restless generation initiated. As they forged a trail into all sorts of unconventional means of self-expression, I was able to benefit from the wilderness they had cleared. Around the time that I found myself in high school, Native American chic had been folded into the fashion options of my peers. I was quickly smitten by the sight of teenaged girls padding quietly through the halls of my school in their soft-soled suede moccasins, a very appealing look with bare legs and shorts, but I was partial to the sight of fringed feet poking out beneath a pair of denim bellbottoms. One day I discovered those moccasins were also available in my own size. If I had known how to squeal “OMG!” at the time, I’m sure I would have.
In those days of coming of age, guys I knew at my church were no strangers to platform shoes. Yet those clunky lace ups didn’t strike my fancy at all. Instead, I was secretly coveting the strappy platform sandals that my female classmates were wearing. They usually featured a thick wood sole with broad swatches of leather holding the feet in place. Again, I have to offer a belated “OMG!!” for the day I discovered that such sandals were being sold in men’s sizes. I snapped up a pair with delight.
By this point I had begun haunting the various shoe stores in town just to see what I could see. I knew there were styles within those shops that I wanted to wear, but I didn’t know how to make them mine. Once upon a time I bought pair of size 8 women’s platform clogs because I thought they were irresistible. On the drive home I discovered they were woefully too small with no hope of fitting me at all. Live and learn. I returned them with some talk of them not fitting my girlfriend. In the days before the internet, there was no place to turn to look things up. Like, say, size conversion charts between men’s and women’s shoes. Or the location of shops that catered to tall sizes.
Those shoes came from a general clothing store in one of my hometown’s strip malls, but just next door was a dedicated shoe store in which I had spotted a sale pair of men’s wooden clogs. They were enthusiastically labeled with information about their orthopedic benefits, and on my feet they looked like something someone my father’s age would wear. I pictured them on the feet of a local druggist or dentist. Still I bought them. But I ended up deciding the only thing they looked good with were my dress pants. You shouldn’t be surprised when I tell you that what really riveted my attention in that shop was a pair of magenta velvet high-heeled platform clogs. I certainly wouldn’t have had anywhere to wear them at that stage of my life. Nor could I imagine at the time what I would have worn them with. But I knew they spoke to me insistently in a language that I couldn’t yet make out clearly. I can’t help but wonder how my life might have turned out if at age 17 or 18 I had found the courage to mouth the words, “May I try those on?”
One afternoon, in the downtown business district of my little town, I wandered into a shoe store that had a feature that I as a footwear fanatic have grown to love: shoe racks. As in racks that contained a good portion of their stock sitting out in the open so that customers can pick up and try on whatever style might strike their fancy. Miracle of miracles, I spotted a pair of men’s leather clogs on those discount racks. Not quite a style that I liked—the cut was too akin to a pair of regular shoes with the backs lopped off—but the shoes had a unique look to them, and being unique, they felt tantalizing. I rather breathlessly pulled the pair off the shelf and slipped my feet inside. YIKES! They were marked 13, but they felt two sizes too big. My feet were absolutely swimming in them! So close...and yet so far. But what had brought me into the shop in the first place was a sign I’d seen in the window...advertising of all things...Olaf Daughters clogs.
These were clogs that were the real deal. True Swedish clogs. With a sturdy wooden sole. And the rounded bump toe upper that gave each foot an unworldly uniform smoothness. What’s more, I noticed that in addition to stocking these Olaf Daughters clogs for women, they also carried them for men.
A brief pause for my heart rate to stabilize.
I knew I wanted to try those clogs on. But something inside of me felt so exposed in admitting that to a complete stranger working the sales floor. Could it really be so simple to reach out and acquire something I desired? Especially when it felt so out of keeping with the more mild-mannered track my life had been on. Especially when something that stirred my passion and desire felt by its very nature that it should be forbidden. I’m happy to report I was beyond asking my mother for permission. I still had a ways to go to find my own inner authority, though. I knew those clogs would be a full price pair of shoes, not some discount item from the sale rack. And I was just a high school kid with a part-time job. But where there’s a will and a tiny voice in your head screaming, “DO THIS!!!!”, there’s a way. The salesman asked my size, and I told him. He disappeared into the stockroom for what seemed like an eternity. I was convinced that it was nakedly obvious that trying these clogs on was a big deal for me. In retrospect, I’m sure I didn’t actually look nervous or behave awkwardly. But I certainly felt I was on the verge of a huge discovery. Here at last was the opportunity to step into an actual pair of shoes that I’d seen on the feet of so many teenaged girls in my high school. And what’s more, this was a men’s pair so in the mental tally my conscience was keeping, it was sanctioned for me to buy them and wear them! The universe had somehow realigned itself slightly in my direction, and I could barely believe it was happening.
The salesperson reappeared with a brightly colored white, blue, and yellow Olaf Daughters box. He efficiently slipped a pair of dark blue nubuck clogs with blonde wood soles onto the floor and invited me to step inside.
And I did.
I’d love to write that in that moment everything changed and I saw my future clearly mapped out before me. Not so. I did find it a heady experience to be standing in the very style of shoes that so fired my imagination. But in that same instant, I also recognized how much that pair of clogs would put me at odds with my friends, my peer group, my classmates, my church, my world. I bought them, of course. How could I not? Though I knew that I had work to do to make them work in my life. And that was going to take years to sort out. They were a wonderful first step down a path that became a lifelong journey. But I truly had to grow into them. Those Olaf Daughters clogs became something that I wore around the house on weekends or to cut the lawn in (!), but I never found the courage to wear them to school or to church or to anywhere truly beyond the safety of home. In my junior year, there was another classmate in the trumpet section of my band whose older brother, a senior, owned and wore a pair of the same clogs. And he seemed to make it through his school day in one piece. For whatever reason, I felt vulnerable and unsure of taking my own stand with them in the world at large. Perhaps because I knew I wanted to do it so intensely, I was that much more afraid of opening my desires up to any scrutiny.
I loved the way those clogs felt on my feet. Looking back, I’m sure they were making me feel empowered as I took possession of my identity and struggled to find my footing in the world. It’s not surprising that because those clogs touched me at the level of my life energy and made me feel somewhat sexy, I thought that if I didn’t have the strength to wear them to school, a great place to wear them instead would be when I went out on a date.
I know you’ll have to take my word for it, but I was worthwhile dating material as a teenager. I was attractive. I could carry on a decent conversation. I had a sense of humor and could make my date laugh. I liked “parking” (which is what we called driving to a quiet side street and making out after a movie). And I was a quick study. When a girl from the high school on the other side of town introduced me to French kissing, I had a new fun thing I liked to do. And when she stuck her tongue in my ear, I knew I really liked spending time with her and wanted to go out with her again. Imagine my dismay when I took her to the movies one pleasant Oklahoma night only to have her look down at my feet in my dark blue Olaf Daughters clogs and laugh. I thought I was looking pretty good. She thought I looked pretty silly. And she let me know it. I had taken a step to bring my outer self in line with my inner self. And the message I got back was: don’t. I never wore those clogs on a date with her again. Or with anyone else. Nor did I venture to show that side of myself to the world again for years to come. It took some time to learn to value who I was, and then even more time to find someone who’d be willing to do the same.
[On the feet here as I blog: two reasons we're in love with winter here...plus a third: the stunning view out the living room window on the vista of fresh fallen snow. Reasons #1 and #2 are our shearling lined clog boots from UGG Australia. That's the Lynnea on the left and the Savanna on the right.]